One of the great things about Japanese trains is how seamlessly train travel connects nationwide. Reserve a ticket, get your seats assigned and travel to your destination anywhere in the country even on different JR company express trains and Shinkansen. This is the legacy of the JNR developed MARS system (Magnetic electronic Automatic seat Reservation System) for express train and Shinkansen seated ticket reservations that powers station ticket kiosks, travel agency systems and nationwide ticket reservation offices. MARS is the tabernacle of JR ticketing. Back in the JNR days ‘Green Window’ reservation window in stations staff knew everything inside out and got you the best connections at the best price. They still do for the most part but are quickly disappearing in favor of online reservations. MARS was designed so well that it has been difficult for JR Group to move forward to ticketless mobile apps with the same JNR era MARS-like unified vision.
But even in local regions cross company thru transit is a given even though designated local regions do not use the JR Group MARS ticketing system. There is a small catch however: you must have a ‘connecting ticket’ specifically designated for the destination on a different connecting company line. For paper tickets that is.
One great innovation of Suica, PASMO and the Transit IC standard was that it did away with the need to purchase special connecting local area tickets. Just tap and go, each company transit gate automatically calculates and deducts the stored fare (SF) from Suica. Another innovation of Suica was IC fare. IC fare is, in almost all cases, slightly cheaper for local area transit in the Tokyo region as the fare is calculated in 1¥ unit increments instead of the 10¥ increment for paper tickets, a benefit of lower cost ticketless IC fare processing. Cheaper IC fare is also encouragement to use IC cards instead of paper tickets. As of FY 2021 JR East says 95% of Tokyo area transit uses Suica/PASMO.
Nevertheless, despite Suica being around 20 years and the Transit IC standard in place for 10, paper mag strip tickets are still with us. Why? A number of reasons but the biggest one being they are essential for long distance interconnected transit. Travelers can get on a local JR West train in the Osaka region, transfer to the Shinkansen and ride to Tokyo, transfer to a JR East local train and ride to their destination with a single purchased set of paper tickets, usually with a discount when purchased far enough in advance. Can’t we already do this with Suica and the like? Yes and no.
Bad JNR Breakup
The 1987 breakup of JNR had some bad repercussions that are still with us today. It came at a crucial point just as the next generation ticketing Suica smart card was in development, delaying deployment for many years. One outcome was this delay fossilized JR Group interconnecting tickets to MARS based paper ticketing.
Post breakup JR companies developed their own transit IC card systems with little regard for MARS JR Group integration, limiting coverage to high volume traffic areas where they could recoup transit IC system installation costs. This resulted in large sections of lower traffic rural lines being left off the Suica/Transit IC map with paper tickets the only option. I experience this situation whenever I travel from Tokyo to Minobu. Suica only goes to Kofu, but the Minobu line is not wired for Transit IC as the Minobu station signage makes very clear.
A transition from mag-strip paper tickets but what about MARS?
When JR East unveiled their next generation transit gate prototype in late 2019 with Suica and QR Code readers but no paper ticket slot, it was clear that closed loop QR ticketing was the transition plan for retiring paper tickets. Mag-strip paper recycling costs are increasing and mechanical paper ticket transit gates are expensive to purchase (said to be 10 million JPY per unit) and maintain. Migrating to QR eliminates these costs…but it will be a long transition. The end of mag-strip paper tickets will only be happen when all JR Group companies have QR integrated with an updated MARS for ticket reservations and validation.
Despite all appearances, JR Group companies have been busy creating a foundation of new services that fall into basic categories:
•Extensions: (1) Closing Transit IC gaps on their respective systems with hard wired stations or readers installed on trains for tap-in/tap-out transit, (2) Extending Transit IC beyond JR Group systems with lower cost cloud based solutions or government subsidized installations for connecting transit operators.
•Cross region transit between Suica-TOICA-ICOCA-SUGOCA regions (Atami, Maibara, Shimonoseki, etc.), this has started with through cross region Transit IC commuter passes, the next step is through cross region for regular cards.
•Online Reservation and Ticketing: MARS integrated Eki-Net, EX/Odekake-Net that offer eTicketing for Shinkansen, Ticketless reservations for express trains and special seasonal package tickets.
•Special Issue: Suica/PASMO for disabled users with discounts that replace paper passes
Suica is extending to cover the entire rail network starting in the Tohoku region in May 2023 with a new lower cost cloud based Suica system (aka Super Suica Cloud), Suica has recently expanded to cover Tohoku region bus companies via the Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Card program that kicked off in 2020. Suica/PASMO for disabled users will also launch.
Announced TOICA will be coming to all lines and stations “soon”, along with more EX non-Shinkansen ticketing options and EX-MaaS package tours that cover train, hotel, car rentals, etc.
In short QR will be a mobile only default replacement for MARS paper tickets while JR East-Central-West are extending Suica-ICOCA-TOICA to be the default mobile + physical card mode for local travel. This covers all of Honshu but we still don’t know what Transit IC expansion + QR MARS plans are in the works for the smaller, financially weaker JR Group companies: JR Kyushu, JR Hokkaido, JR Shikoku.
The Eki-Net QR Super Suica Cloud Connection
One of the little noticed key aspects of the JR East Eki-Net QR Ticket announcement is the initial service launch area and time: Tohoku. This is the same area where the Suica 2.0 extension is launching in May 2023. Eki-Net QR starts here over a year later, between October 2024~March 2025. This new Suica system has a few tricks up the sleeve that give a clue how Cloud Suica and Eki-Net QR complement each other. Let’s start with the new Suica/PASMO cards for disabled users launching in March 2023. Fare discounts for disabled users are very complex as they are certified by the resident local ward or city. Up until now paper passbooks were manually examined at entrance or exit to verify the fare discount.
Suica/PASMO disability fare cards are the first time the discount is validated by the Suica system. Look very carefully at the valid use regions because Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards were designed to support special fares on non-JR East transit and region affiliates will support Suica/PASMO disability cards when they launch. As both Cloud Suica and QR will use the same cloud linked transit gates, it’s a given they will also share the same backend validation system.
Where does Eki-Net QR fare fit?
The Eki-Net online reservation and ticketing system we use now is be the same one people will use to buy and display QR Code tickets. You can already use QR Codes to pickup paper tickets from a station kiosk, displaying the same QR Code to go through a gate is the next natural step. The essential question is which fare grouping QR tickets will reside in. Currently JR East has 2 basic fare groups:
- eTicket and Ticketless (Suica / Transit IC cards)
Local region fare tier rounded to 1¥ that is usually slightly cheaper, Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets with bigger discounts, Eki-Net Ticketless Express Train Reservations with bigger discounts
- Paper Tickets
Local region fare tier rounded to 10¥ that is usually slightly more expensive, express train and Shinkansen tickets without eTicket/Ticketless discounts, special campaign and seasonal tickets, package tours, etc., with discounts.
The JR East Eki-Net QR diagram give us an idea of how it will work for long distance, multi-stage travel in the JR East region:
As the diagram shows, the only possible MARS integration point is the Shinkansen ticket portion. The rest of the ticket is internal JR East local fare ticketing. The most interesting point is the first local transit leg from Kami-Morioka to Morioka. This is the Yamada line that does not have Suica service and is not included in the May 2023 Cloud Suica expansion. This is why no tap-in validation shown at the start point.
The logical progression is that Eki-Net QR tickets simply replace the paper ticket tier. There’s a huge variety of one-off specials and package tours that don’t fit well in the Suica eTicket/Ticketless box that would be ideal for QR treatment. We shall see but I suspect JR will want to keep some differentiation in place because NFC Suica/Transit IC ticketing works without a network connection, QR Code ticketing does not. And we all know that station network environments are the worst.
New Transit Gate Design
Last but not least we have QR reader equipped transit gates that JR East will start installing in stations starting December 2022. Like the paper to QR transition, installation will see a gradual replacement of older end-of-life combo Suica + paper transit gates with new Suica+QR+paper transit gates. We may also see installment of the earlier Suica + QR prototype gates that JR East tested in 2020.
One aspect of both designs is the QR reader is placed way in front of the Suica reader, which is placed as far back as possible. This peculiar design has an important function of preventing ‘Suica Express Transit’ card clash when a user is going though the gate displaying a QR Code. JR East doesn’t want an extraneous Suica card read/write to clash with a QR read that sets Suica to ‘start transit’ mode. The gates will almost certainly automatically turn off the blue Suica reader when it detects a QR Code, but keeping the readers far apart is a good thing. We don’t want any MTA OMNY-like launch nonsense. A similar NFC/QR clash is common in Europe when the different readers are place too close.
This is only a start. JR East has only announced the broad outlines of their paper to QR transition, the real transition will kickoff when other JR Group companies announce their plans which they have not done so far. One thing is for sure, the trusty old JNR MARS based mag-strip paper ticket reservation system is finally getting an upgrade for the cloud based mobile ticketing age.